Finding the Best Resources for Medical Students

Anna Piazza - Feb 21, 2019

Gathering the right medical school resources to study for USMLE Step 1 or 2, or an NBME Shelf exam, is a test unto itself. How do you ensure you have everything you need to pass? With every resource you pick up, you need to determine whether it covers the right topics, that the content is high-yield and high-quality, and that you can easily adapt it to your learning style. Most importantly, you have to consider how different resources will work together — that they don't compete with, but complement, each other.

"The best combination will help you cover all your bases, allow you to learn and cross-check information and get you thinking like a doctor."

The first step in choosing resources is understanding what’s out there. Let’s start by exploring the types of resources available and how they can serve your needs.

Types of Medical Resources

Most resources will fall into two major categories, Qbanks and reference resources, and then further break down into other subcategories:

Qbanks, or question banks, feature multiple-choice questions worded and formatted in USMLE- or Shelf-exam style. That means questions present sample patient encounters, giving you the chance to apply your medical knowledge in real-life scenarios. You'll often be asked to determine what the most relevant information in that patient’s case is, connect symptoms to diagnoses, and understand the pathology or epidemiology of the case at hand. When it comes to USMLE and Shelf exams, the more questions you do, the better you’ll perform on exam day, so finding an extensive Qbank—and a high-quality one at that, as they do vary—should be a top priority. Set up sessions specific to whatever you'd like to focus on at that moment, and switch to Exam Mode to set up a practice version of the exam you're prepping for.

Reference resources, meanwhile, offer background information and explanations on topics. This can be in the form of texts, diagnostic images, charts, and more. Sometimes these resources will be specific to one particular discipline, like only anatomy or only microbiology. Other times, they’ll span an entire exam or curriculum, like, for example, the full scope of Step 1. In either case, the ideal resource will be comprehensive and function as a home base for your studying.

A solid reference resource will provide an organized overview of the information you’re studying. This overview can then serve as the scaffolding of your knowledge that can then be enriched with information and notes coming from other places, like from your coursework or supplemental resources.

Reference resources can also splinter off into subgenres, so to speak, differing in how they present information. Sometimes the resource is defined by the kind of media they predominantly rely on, other times it’s by a particular study strategy. Some reference resources focus on visual materials, like videos, illustrations, and slideshows. And it’s not just visual learners who benefit from them. The strength of these types of materials lies in their ability to present information in new contexts, making knowledge recall easier later on. For example, videos will sometime use easy-to-follow storytelling techniques or present mnemonic devices in eye-catching ways.

Students also find flashcards a trusty resource and study method. Used with spaced repetition, flashcards offer a way to test your knowledge via active recall. In addition, they foster metacognition, meaning you can self-reflect and assess your progress more acutely. After a few sessions, you’ll have a clearer idea of what you’re doing well on and what needs more revising and testing. (Check out how you can incorporate flashcards into your learning here.)

Using Different Medical Resources Together

In order to keep your studying manageable and accessible, it’s a good idea to stick to three to four resources (or whatever minimum you feel most comfortable with). At least one should be a Qbank. The resources you choose and the way in which you combine them will be highly dependent on how you study, as well as where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

Let’s consider an example in which you’d be using multiple resources during one study session:

You’re going through a Qbank session when you run into a question you’re not sure about. You decide to quickly pause and check up on the topic in one of your reference resources. You take some time going over the high-yield information a few times. You remember that your video resource features a video on a trickier aspect of that high-yield information and watch that once or twice through. Feeling more familiar with the topic, you go back to the Qbank question and see if you can determine the right answer this time around.

It’s one approach to studying but does require juggling between a few very different resources. At some point, you’ll probably want a more efficient approach. AMBOSS is unique in that all of those resources are condensed into one space so that you can switch between a Qbank, Knowledge Library, videos (like ones created by Osmosis and Picmonic), and interactive materials with just a click. And being a digital platform, it offers “smart” advantages, too. Tools like High-Yield Mode, the Attending Tip, and answer explanations lead you to the right answer as well as teach concepts, and you can toggle them on and off according to your needs. In addition, it’s a full resource system that can be accessed anywhere thanks to its desktop and mobile apps. Most importantly, AMBOSS offers detailed personalized analyses and recommendations on what to study next, so that you’re always aware of your strengths and on top of your weaknesses.

Using a condensed, while diverse, collection of resources is a great way to prep for exam day. Every media and method they provide can help exercise your ability to learn and recall information and put you into practice for real-life scenarios. Consider the options above when choosing yours and you’re sure to find a system that will help you score high on exam day.

Studying for Step 1?

Looking for some advice and inspiration on how to study for USMLE Step 1? Tim B, an M4 at The University of Michigan School of Medicine, answers commonly asked questions about Step 1 resources, exam day strategy, and how exam results can impact your future career.

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